Watch 11-Year-Old Billy Preston Duet with Nat King Cole: A Star is Born (1957)

The Bea­t­les aren’t the only fab tal­ents caus­ing a stir in the recent­ly released Bea­t­les doc­u­men­tary, Get Back.

As has been wide­ly not­ed, soul singer Bil­ly Pre­ston lights up every scene he’s in.

One of the 60’s finest ses­sion key­boardists, Pre­ston con­tributed to the Bea­t­les’ Let It Be and Abbey Road albums, and joined them for their famous final gig on the roof of Apple Records.

He also served as a lev­el­ing influ­ence when ten­sions with­in the band fre­quent­ly explod­ed into fits of tem­per.

“It’s inter­est­ing to see how nice­ly peo­ple behave when you bring a guest in,” George Har­ri­son observed.

In addi­tion to his suc­cess­ful solo career, with a num­ber of funk and R&B hits, Pre­ston gigged for a host of all time greats: Ray Charles, Lit­tle Richard, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones…the list goes on.

A child­hood prodi­gy who nev­er took a music les­son, by 10, he was back­ing gospel lumi­nar­ies like Mahalia Jack­sonJames Cleve­land, and Andraé Crouch.

A year lat­er, he entered America’s liv­ing rooms, when he appeared on The Nat King Cole Show, above, to duet with TV’s first nation­al Black vari­ety show host on “Blue­ber­ry Hill,” a 40s tune Fats Domi­no had pop­u­lar­ized ear­li­er in the decade.

“You have a very excel­lent career ahead of you,” Cole pre­dicts, fol­low­ing their per­for­mance.

Daugh­ter Natal­ie Cole lat­er enthused that the cel­e­brat­ed croon­er “lets this kid have all the glo­ry,” though the self-pos­sessed pre-teen holds his own ably, alter­nat­ing between organ and his own impres­sive pipes.

With­in the year, Cole and Pre­ston shared the big screen, and a mem­o­rable part, when they were cast as “The Father Of The Blues” W.C. Handy, as a child and adult, in the 1958 movie St Louis Blues.

As an adult, Pre­ston’s star was tar­nished by addic­tion, arrests and self-sab­o­tag­ing behav­ior that his man­ag­er, Joyce Moore, and half-sis­ter Let­tie, said was most deeply root­ed in his mother’s refusal to believe that he was being sex­u­al­ly abused by the pianist of a sum­mer tour­ing com­pa­ny, and lat­er a local pas­tor.

It’s part of a lurid, longer tale, call­ing to mind oth­er promis­ing, oft-prodi­gious young tal­ents who nev­er man­aged to get out from under dam­age inflict­ed by adults when they were chil­dren.

He was 9.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Paul McCart­ney Com­pose The Bea­t­les Clas­sic “Get Back” Out of Thin Air (1969)

The Bea­t­les’ 8 Pio­neer­ing Inno­va­tions: A Video Essay Explor­ing How the Fab Four Changed Pop Music

Is “Rain” the Per­fect Bea­t­les Song?: A New Video Explores the Rad­i­cal Inno­va­tions of the 1966 B‑Side

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­maol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Hugh M Evans says:

    Very well writ­ten & TYVM for men­tion­ing his abuse as a child– w all the Bea­t­les inter­est late­ly his “Fifth Bea­t­le” sta­tus is always ref­er­enced, but his demons, espe­cial­ly his becom­ing a preda­tor– hap­pen­ing even while the work w the Bea­t­les was ongo­ing, almost nev­er gets cov­ered.

  • Njf says:

    He was very tal­ent­ed, but it’s ter­ri­ble about the sex­u­al abuse. I have heard that he was gay, and I don’t know if that has any­thing to do with it. He alleged­ly vic­tim­ized some guys him­self. A promis­ing life end­ed too soon!

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